Petrolia’s First Railway

This weeks article is by Tom Walter. Tom is a local railway enthusiast, model railroader and a member of the Petrolia150 team, sharing his local railway history knowledge; specifically about the Petrolia spur.Blog collage plus GWR ds

Image by Tom Walter

Tom’s first article (of what we hope will be several) about the spur provides an overview of the entire 128 year history of the line. Built privately by Petrolia businessmen and opened by the Great Western Railway, the Petrolia spur line was the first railway to arrive in Petrolia and the last to disappear.

Please enjoy Tom’s article below and share the Petrolia150 blog with your friends…


‘War (sort of), Romance and Mischief on the Petrolia Spur’

The first oil men in Lambton County had a big problem: transportation. It was hard enough to get the oil out of the ground. What to do with it next was just as challenging. The oil fields were remote and if the oil couldn’t be moved out of the bush, there could be no business.

A partial answer arrived in 1858, with the building of the Sarnia Branch of the Great Western Railway. The railway brought practical, reliable transportation within reach of the oil fields. Getting the oil to Wyoming, the nearest rail head, was the next challenge due to the terrible road conditions (mud) for most of the year.

When oil was discovered in the Petrolia area in the early 1860’s the oil men approached the GWR about building a spur line into the oil patch to bypass the muddy roads. The railway declined, probably fearing that the oil production would dwindle, just as it had in Oil Springs, a few miles south of Petrolia.

With the same stubborn, independent streak that drove them into the swamps to dig for oil in the first place, the oil men, under the leadership of John Henry Fairbank went ahead, raised $50,000 and built the spur themselves.

The opening of the Petrolia Railway Spur launched a 128 year history of rail service in Petrolia. The initial reluctance of the Great Western Railway to participate in building the spur into Petrolia was rapidly reversed once the British directors realized that their counterparts in Canada were putting their own money into the scheme.

Six weeks before the line opened for traffic on Dec. 17, 1866, the Great Western assumed ownership. It was a wise move. The revenue for the first eight months of operation fully covered the construction costs of 10,551 pounds and 14 shillings, prompting historian Ed Phelps to muse that the Great Western Petrolia Spur was perhaps Canada’s most profitable branch line.

The history of the spur that followed was not that of a typical, sleepy branch line. Traffic was heavy. The daily oil train out of town eventually averaged 10 cars per day (sometimes reaching as many as 30).

Reading through the old newspapers, one is also struck with the impression that there was an ongoing war between the Great Western and the town. Decrepit buildings, uncomfortable passenger cars and bad timekeeping were only some of the complaints that Petrolia had with the railway.

More seriously, discriminatory oil tariffs hampered the growth of the early refining industry in the town.

Things improved in 1878 when the oil men, fed up with the Great Western monopoly, induced the Canada Southern to build a competing spur into Petrolia from the south. Unfortunately, for the Canada Southern, the Great Western responded to the competition of a second spur by lowering their rates. Since the GWR routes were more direct than those of the CASO, the Great Western always retained the lion’s share of the traffic.

Following the loss of Imperial Oil to Sarnia in 1898, the Petrolia GTR spur (the Grand Trunk took over the GWR in 1882) provided the transportation muscle that sustained the town’s industrial rebirth early in the 20th century.

The GTR also built a new station in 1903, after years of complaints about the old GWR station’s condition. It became an iconic building, which serves Petrolia even today as the town library.

The Petrolia Spur had its romantic side, too. When the oil flowed, so did the money. Wealth built up by Petrolia’s oil industry ensured that there was enough to spend on leisure in the early years.Both of Petrolia’s railway spurs were beneficiaries.

Beginning in the 1870’s and lasting into the 1920’s, great numbers of day excursions were run from both of Petrolia’s railway stations. Petrolia’s central location in Lambton County meant there was a wonderful range of possible destinations within easy reach for a day excursion: Port Stanley, Alvinston, Bright’s Grove, Lake Huron Park in Sarnia, Pt Edward, Stag Island and Detroit were all on the list.

Naturally, the St. Clair River provided many of the most popular destinations. Just imagine walking to the depot and boarding a wooden coach hauled by a steam engine. Then, clanking past the oil wells and refining district to Wyoming and the mainline and on to the river for a boat ride to the picnic grounds.

If you were young and couldn’t afford an excursion ticket, the trains still gave plenty of entertainment in town. The rail yards in Petrolia were always a magnet for kids: loitering, jumping off and on moving trains, stealing rides were issues facing all of the Petrolia station agents, especially in the early years.

In the 1880’s, a conviction of “Trespass on the GTR” would land you a $2.00 fine or five days in jail (your choice). Even as late as the 1970’s, they had to put locks on the switches when some kid tampered with one and put an engine ‘in the dirt’.  Many a youth made sport of climbing around on the gantry crane, sometimes with unhappy results.

On more than one occasion, the spur line provided a getaway route for thieves operating at night. One time there was a stick-up on the tracks near the pork plant. On another occasion, Chief Ferguson apprehended two suspects in a Port Huron warehouse theft as they were lurking in the Petrolia GTR yards. Runaway cars, fires and collisions all added moments of high drama over the years.

The Petrolia Spur soldiered on through two world wars and the depression. The passenger service ended in 1931, but freight traffic remained healthy. Even into the 1950’s, Canadian National Railways (CN absorbed the bankrupt GTR in 1923) still considered Petrolia to be a major shipping point among the non-urban centers between Sarnia and Toronto. By this time, grain had replaced oil as the principle commodity handled.

Finally, in the 1960’s, services on the spur were cut back due to reduced traffic, in the face of  truck competition. Business on the Petrolia CNR spur dwindled to the point where only 8 carloads moved on the line during all of 1992.

The last train delivered a load of pipe in 1994. In March of that year, Canadian National applied to the National Transportation Agency to abandon the Petrolia spur. There was no opposition and no buyer could be found.

On the morning of April 24, 1997 track lifting commenced. Three days later the Petrolia Spur was no more.

 Tom Walter  April 2016

[Tom knows so much about the Petrolia spur that he’s writing a book about it. Tentatively entitled, “CNR: Petrolia – The History of a South Western Ontario Spur Line” he hopes to have the book ready for release in time for the sesquicentennial of the spur’s official opening, on December 17 of this year. We’ll keep you posted. – S.L.]

Petrolia CNR rail bed - 2007_06m
Walking up the spur right of way, towards the library. Even this scene no longer exists. The addition of the market and an interceding townhouse has obscured the view.

2 thoughts on “Petrolia’s First Railway

  1. Great article. Would love to read the book when it comes out.
    I remember as a kid growing up in Wyoming and playing along the tracks (much to moms dismay) and seeing the train on the spur line. Then, in a relatively short time, it was abandoned and the weeds were as tall as us. Still managed to hike along all the way to Petrolia and back.
    I’ll never forget the piles of old ties and the smell of creosote.
    Good memories.

    Liked by 1 person

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